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Why You Need to Put Yourself First and How to Do It

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Before I had my daughter in 2005, at age 32, I spent my time boxing, surfing, traveling the world as part of my job with a tour operator, and fixing up a dilapidated beach house with my husband. I had lots of fun, but spent very little time doing things for other people.

I made time for my husband, my family, and my friends, but I was mostly able to do what I wanted, when I wanted.

Then, we had baby.

For the first year of my daughter’s life, she came before everything else. In a way, it was a relief to look outside myself so completely. There’s a dark side to constantly focusing on yourself. It can lead to a rigid way of thinking, an inability to be flexible or to compromise. If you’re constantly looking at yourself in the mirror, you can’t see anyone around you.

Just as I was coming out of my baby fog, and starting to get back into focusing on my own health, my son was born 2008. Now I had two people’s needs to put before my own.

It took two years until I was able to think about putting my needs first again.

I realized I had swung too far in the other direction, and I needed to put myself higher on my list of priorities. I couldn’t go back to the way I was before kids, but I had to find a way to prioritize health and fitness while building my career, taking care of my kids, and spending time with my husband — all while not getting buried under mountains of laundry.

Why You Need to Put Yourself First and How to Do It

First, Establish Priorities

I think sometimes people misunderstand what it means to “put yourself first.” It doesn’t mean doing what you want to do all the time. It doesn’t mean ignoring the needs of others. It’s all a matter of priorities and understanding the interplay between taking care of yourself and others.

I have four main priorities in my life: family, community, health, and work. Two of these are self directed: my health and my work. Two equally important priorities, my family and my community, are more altruistic.

The reality is that all of my priorities are intertwined, and the success of one depends on the other.

If I ignore my health, it’s difficult to be there for my family, both mentally and physically. My workouts help stabilize my mood, give me more energy, and prolong my life. This is why I don’t feel any shame putting a high priority on my hour in the gym. It’s not only about looking good in my lululemon pants (although that is a nice side benefit), it’s about having the energy to be engaged and present with my husband and children.

Exercising also benefits my work. Writing requires creativity, and that doesn’t always happen sitting in front of a computer. Biking home from the gym is when I get my best ideas. It’s not a surprise to me that studies show exercise boosts creativity. I experience it firsthand almost every day.

Why You Need to Put Yourself First and How to Do It

On the surface, it might seem like family, especially kids, would be at odds with health and work. And, truth be told, sometimes they are, especially when the kids were babies. But as I worked through the process of focusing more on my own health and my career, I began to see how my habits benefit my family.

It’s important to me to eat lots of vegetables. Every night I make a salad plus some other vegetable. My kids have grown up seeing all sorts of vegetables appear on their plates, and it’s made an impact. They happily consume salad, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale. (I’m still working on chard.) My kids also benefit from my healthy habits because they are growing up with an example of parents who prioritize health and fitness.

The community part of this equation is interesting. For me, community encompasses my friends, my neighborhood, and any organizations that are meaningful to me. I give back to my community by volunteering monthly at a local soup kitchen, helping the local elementary school, or doing favors for my friends.

These things are all about putting others first, but focusing on community does help me at times, too. If I’ve done a favor for a friend — let’s say watched her kids so she can go to the gym — I don’t feel bad asking her for the same favor. It’s important to ask for help as much as you offer it. It puts you in a vulnerable position, but nothing strengthens a friendship more than asking for a favor.

Volunteering within my community helps connect me to a cause greater than myself, and gives meaning to my life. Having a purpose, and being connected to a larger cause, has a positive effect on well-being and overall satisfaction. Happiness is tied to getting what you want, which does not always happen. Meaning is longer lasting, better able to endure the vicissitudes of life.

Why You Need to Put Yourself First and How to Do It

How the Whole Life Challenge Helps You Commit to Yourself

Intellectually you may understand how prioritizing your health benefits those around you, but putting this knowledge into practice can be difficult.

That’s where the Whole Life Challenge comes in.

Making a financial commitment and joining a supportive team is a great incentive to start putting your health first.

But before getting started, you have to accept a few things are likely to suffer. Life is full of tradeoffs and you’ll be more successful if you’re also realistic.

During the week, I have to let household chores slide. It’s how I make room for exercise and cooking a healthy meal every night, on top of work and getting kids to various practices and lessons. So, the laundry piles up and I do four or five loads on the weekend instead. In addition, I commit part of each Sunday to meal planning and shopping for food so I can ensure another successful week.

But what is most important is that I don’t try to do everything myself. Everyone in the family pitches in. If you’re worried how your family will react to your newly rearranged priorities, talk it over with them. Reassure them the big things will not change, and explain the benefits of you focusing on yourself.

Why You Need to Put Yourself First and How to Do It

When You Get in the Way of You

What if the barrier to putting yourself first is — yourself? In this case, it might be useful to think about why you have trouble prioritizing your own needs.

  • Is always putting others first part of your identity?
  • Do you dislike exercising and eating healthy, and use putting others first as a way to avoid doing those things?
  • Another misconception about putting yourself first is that it entails only enjoyable, relaxing activities. This isn’t the case.

When it comes to health, putting yourself first means exercising when you don’t want to or drinking sparkling water when you’d rather have a soda. These things may not be entirely pleasurable, or what you feel like doing, but they will improve your life in the long run.

Review: How to Put Yourself First

  1. Make a list of your priorities. Keep it short.
  2. Ask for help from your family and your community.
  3. Keep a balance between treating yourself and giving to others.
  4. Remember putting yourself first sometimes involves doing things that are difficult, but benefit you in the long run.

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Hilary Achauer
Hilary Achauer is a freelance health and fitness writer. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Greatist, Racked, Men's Health, Today's Parent, San Diego Magazine, and the CrossFit Journal.

A former children's books editor, Hilary once competed as an amateur boxer, but now spends her free time in a CrossFit gym or surfing. Find out more about her at